This is one of the stories I read on Sunday, as part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival.
(Inspired by a photograph by Sid Kaplan: "Doorway, P. S. 190, New York City, 1955")
It was Stinky Markowitz’s idea. Later, some people said it was Benny Bumstock but it wasn’t. Benny was the sidekick. Stinky was the brains.
If Mrs. Markowitz hadn’t been baking that day, and if the living room phone hadn’t rung, and if it wasn’t that sister of hers, Gladys, the pretty one — you know, the one with three husbands — and if they hadn’t talked so long, then none of this would have happened. But why even think like that? Like my Bubbe says: If a cow had wheels it would be a wagon.
So Stinky comes home for a glass of milk, maybe a cookie, too, and he sees the kitchen is a mess, flour everywhere, mother nowhere. And zip-zap, out of the blue, an idea hits him.
He sticks his head out the window where Benny, Lefty Katz, and Morris Blattski are going through the garbage cans, looking for cigarette butts. “Fellas,” he calls, “come on up.” So they do. They climb up the fire escape, through the Markowitz’s kitchen window, and quick like a mosquito they’re in like Flynn.
“Boys,” Stinky says, sweeping his arm in an arc big enough to take in the flour canister, the rolling pin, the pie pans — in short, the whole kitchen table — ”Whaddya think?”
Now Benny, Lefty, and even Morris, they’re not the quickest wits on the street. I told you already, Stinky was the brains in this outfit. So they don’t say nothing, ‘cause they don’t think nothing.
But Stinky, his mind never shuts off, not even when he’s sleeping. He sees the flour and to him it spells opportunity.
“Just do like I do,” he tells them, and he puts his hands — splat, splat — down on the table. The other guys, they do the same. When Stinky lifts his hands, his palms are coated in flour. Benny, Lefty, Morris: ditto.
Stinky’s grinning so big you can see the wad of pink Bazooka in his right cheek. Slowly, Benny sees the light. “Yeah,” he says, a grin coming to him as well, “this is good.” But the light Benny sees, it’s not the same light Stinky’s got. Benny just sees mischief. Stinky sees victory.
“Follow me, men.” And Stinky’s out the window and down the fire escape, with Benny and Lefty right behind him, and Morris bringing up the rear.
Morris, he doesn’t have a clue, and Lefty’s not feeling too good, his foot, from where the dog bit him that time, it’s throbbing again, what with all the up and down on the fire escape. But still, the four of them meet up on the corner, they turn the corner, they walk to the next corner, and there it is: Fish and Toots Morelli’s house.
The evil Morelli Brothers, one worse than the next. Fish is older and stronger but Toots is meaner. Stinky and his gang have been known to walk three blocks out of their way to avoid the Morellis, but this day — bold as bombardiers — they walk right up to the Morelli's front door.
Stinky slaps both his hands against the wood. He steps back and examines the effect. Good clean prints. Benny, he slaps his right hand, his left hand — not a single complaint. Next, Lefty — perfect. Morris Blattski, well his left print is okay but his right one’s smudgy. “Stinky,” he whines, “you never told me not to scratch myself.”
Except for that, it’s a good job: seven perfect white hand prints and one smudgy one. On the Morelli Brother’s front door. In broad daylight. And they didn’t get killed.
The boys take off, heading for the playground, where they squirt water out of the drinking fountain until the parkie chases them off. Then they go to the swings and make kiss-kiss noises at the girls. All in all, a truly excellent day.
In the morning, the whole neighborhood knows the Morelli family has taken off. Old Mrs. Carsey saw the brothers and their parents heading toward the subway a little after ten at night, each one carrying three, four shopping bags full of stuff. “That Toots,” she says, “he was crying. I swear.” That part was hard to believe, but the rest of her story was undeniable: the Morelli house stood empty of human life. All that was left were the flies and the roaches.
I’ll tell you what happened. Mr. Morelli, he comes home from the shoe store where he works and he sees those white hand prints on his front door. Now Mr. Morelli, he isn’t what you’d call a deep thinker. He knows about the Black Hand, the Cosa Nostra, but he’s never heard of the White Hand before. He figures what he doesn’t know could really hurt him. He must’ve done something pretty bad to get the White Hand mad at him like this: 7 1/2 prints. Oh boy. Whatever he did, he wishes he hadn’t done it.
So he gets his wife and his sons to pack up, fast-fast-fast, and just like that, the Morellis are gone, off to a new neighborhood where the brothers can torture some other poor schnooks.
Now Mr. and Mrs. Morelli, they were good people, no one wished them any harm. But there’s something you’ve got to understand about Fish and Toots: they were just plain rotten. When they left there was dancing in the streets. And not just kids, but grown-up people, too. Dancing with tears of joy in their eyes.
Mrs. Leiberman, the grocer’s wife, she heard Benny was behind it all, she wanted to give him a reward: five dollars! Everybody was going, “Yay, Benny. Atta boy Benny,” like he was really something. Forget about Benny-the-Bum. They were calling him Brave Benny now.
But Benny, you got to give him credit for this, he didn’t let the praise go to his head. He told everyone that Stinky Markowitz was the real hero, and Morris and Lefty, they helped too. So they each got one dollar, and the other dollar, Mrs. Leiberman kept it. That’s only fair.
After that, nobody threw water on those boys when they played stickball in the street. The women, they didn’t clutch their pocketbooks close to their bosoms. It was like a real peaceful feeling came to the neighborhood. It was very nice.
It lasted a little over a week.